It was 1958, and the cold winds of Long Island blew in from the ocean, their high-pitched howl mixing with the dusty, musky, mellifluous liquid sounds of rock and roll — the sounds of another life, the sounds of freedom.
As Alan Freed pounded a telephone book and the honking sax of Big Al Sears seared the airwaves with his theme song “Hand Clappin’,” I sat staring at an indecipherable book on plane geometry, whose planes and angles would forever escape me. And I wanted to escape it and the world of SAT tests the college boards — leap immediately and eternally into the world of Shirley and Lee, The Diablos, The Paragon, The Jesters, Lilian Leach and the Mellows (“Smoke from Your Cigarette”), Alicia and the Rockaways (“Why Can’t I Be Loved?” — a question that certainly occupied my teenage time). The lyrics sat in my head like Shakespearean sonnets, with all the power of tragedy: “Gloria,” “Why Don’t You Write Me, Darling, Send Me a Letter” by The Jacks.
And then there was Dion — that great opening to “I Wonder Why” engraved in my skull forever. Dion, whose voice was unlike any other I had heard before. Dion could do all the turns stretch those syllables so effortlessly, soar so high he could reach the sky and dance there among the stars forever. What a voice — that had absorbed and transmogrified all these influences into his own soul, as the wine turns into blood, a voice that stood on its own remarkably and unmistakably from New York — Bronx Soul. It was the kind of voice you never forget. Over the years that voice has stayed with me, as it has, I’m sure, stayed with you. And whenever I hear it I’m flooded with memories of what once was and what could be.
It’s been my pleasure to get to know Dion over the years and even, my idea of heaven, sing occasional backup for him. He doesn’t know how long I’d rehearsed those bass-line vocals. I was ready to back up Dion. He had the chops, and he practically invented the attitude. “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna,” “The Wanderer” … “I’ll tear open my shirt and show her ‘Rosie’ on my chest,” a line so good that twenty-odd years later I couldn’t resist doing a variant on it for one of my own albums.
After all, who could be hipper than Dion?